The breadth of the pandemic’s impact on postsecondary education is difficult to fathom. What is likely to return to pre-COVID normal, and what has the pandemic changed forever?

Long after their devastating impacts on lives and livelihoods, global pandemics almost always have lasting repercussions on medicine, architecture, society, geopolitics, and much else—including academe, of course. The Black Death emptied European university campuses in the late Middle Ages and closed Elizabethan playhouses, on and off, for decades. The plague may also have facilitated the adoption of teaching and learning in vernacular languages, and turned some playwrights to writing sonnets instead of scripts.

A century ago, the Spanish Flu prompted extended workplace closures, as well as public health orders limiting gatherings and requiring facemasks. It also contributed to the widespread development of public health departments and sanitary sewer systems; sparked worker revolts and unionization; and popularized verandahs, window screens, and washrooms near the front door.

However, the Great Pandemic of 2020-22, driven by the COVID-19 virus, is different in one crucial way.

The first digital pandemic

Unlike the Black Death or Spanish Flu, COVID-19 emerged in a world of unprecedented global connectivity and automation. Robotic assembly lines, warehouses, and meat processing plants could continue operating at full capacity, despite the viral threat to human workers. Thanks to widespread internet access, many office workers could opt to work from home, while online retailers and streaming services saw exponential growth. Even some of the most reluctant luddites learned to use online banking, food delivery services, curbside pickup, and videoconferencing tools. And, instead of shutting down our universities or reverting to correspondence by mail, most scholars and students pivoted to emergency remote instruction and digital access to libraries and other pedagogical resources. For better or worse, twenty-first-century technologies made it possible for the world’s governments to impose more widespread and lasting lockdowns than had been previously imaginable.

Canada’s universities were fortunate that so much digital infrastructure was already in place when COVID-19 struck. University libraries had been growing their digital collections and journal subscriptions for more than a decade. A full generation of scholars had become fluent users of email and web browsers. Videoconferencing platform Zoom had been around for eight years before the pandemic, and many academics and administrators had already used it at least once. Pretty much every postsecondary institution had adopted some form of Learning Management System, even if many instructors used it only to post their course syllabi. Laptop computers were more popular than desktops, and broadband internet was available to many (though not all) at a reasonable price.

A decade ahead

Management consultancies have calculated that the COVID-19 pandemic propelled ecommerce growth and technology adoption curves forward about a decade’s worth in a matter of months. Likewise, higher education’s slow and steady adoption of streaming and recording lectures, online learning, virtual conferences, and digital resources and simulations (all of which were clear trends prior to 2020) were abruptly kicked into overdrive by the pandemic. The future had arrived early—at least a decade early—and we were simply not ready.

Campus servers and infrastructure were not prepared for 100 per cent of research, learning, meetings, and interactions to shift online overnight. Virtual meeting and conference platforms were still missing many features that could more fully replicate in-person gatherings, including breakout rooms and moderation functionality. Academic policies and grading rubrics (not to mention federal policies for international student visas) were all based on traditional assumptions about in-person classroom participation and examinations. Tech-enabled pedagogies like flipped classrooms, blended and Hyflex delivery, adaptive learning platforms, virtual reality, and gamified simulations were being pilot-tested by some early adopters, but were still far from mainstream use. Employment contracts and collective agreements were not designed with flexible or remote work in mind, nor the preparation and practice required for teaching and grading students effectively online. Most institutions had given little thought to the challenge of providing instruction, advising, and support services twenty-four hours a day in order to meet the needs of students scattered around the globe.

Campus servers and infrastructure were not prepared for 100 per cent of research, learning, meetings, and interactions to shift online overnight.

And, of course, none of us—faculty, staff, students, nor administrators—were psychologically prepared for months of isolation at home, with almost all social and professional human interaction confined to a laptop screen. The pandemic’s relentless ambiguity and uncertainty sparked a shadow pandemic of anxiety and mental health challenges, particularly among teenaged undergraduates, but also for students dependent upon precarious income from front-line employment, parents juggling working from home while managing remote study for their children, and everyone fearful for vulnerable friends and relatives.

The pandemic’s relentless ambiguity and uncertainty sparked a shadow pandemic of anxiety and mental health challenges.

If the steady adoption of academic technologies had continued at its pre-pandemic pace, by the year 2030 many of us would have gradually developed skills, routines, coping mechanisms, and supports that might have substantially eased the digital transition. We might not have liked it, or chosen it, but we would have found the pandemic pivot far less painful had it occurred a decade or more in the future.

Asymmetric impact

In the initial panic of the 2020 digital pivot, most of us were so distressed by our own challenges and circumstances that we failed to realize we were in fact the fortunate ones. The COVID-19 pandemic had a profoundly asymmetric impact on many seriously disadvantaged populations, exacerbating economic inequities and widening the so-called “digital divide.” Full-time university faculty had job security, health benefits, knowledge-based work, and substantial technology support from their institutions. Many had home offices, computers, and internet access already, or could establish it quickly. But many part-time and contingent faculty, graduate teaching assistants, and other university employees had few of those advantages—and sadly, the weight of pandemic challenges and risks fell disproportionately on younger, female, immigrant workers, and people of colour.

The pivot to remote and home schooling undermined the equalizing effect of public-school facilities and targeted supports—exacerbating the wealth gap between socioeconomic strata. Some parents had the resources to engage with their children’s education and invest in private tutoring or “learning pods” with neighbouring families. However, disadvantaged students endured significant academic disruption without the usual attention and support. High school students struggled with attendance, motivation, and particularly mathematics, which is already impacting university applications. Elementary school students struggled with reading and experienced a learning lag that may persist for years and into university. In addition, preschoolers, isolated in their formative years, may struggle with social anxiety, interpersonal communication, and even some measure of learned helplessness for the foreseeable future.

Some inequities are well documented already and will likely be targeted by substantial federal and provincial remediation programs. During the pandemic, economic and technological obstacles grew substantially for Indigenous, rural, and remote Canadians—even as COVID-19 ravaged their communities and overwhelmed their hospitals. The asymmetric impacts of the pandemic were even experienced by universities themselves: large, urban, prestigious institutions attracted more applications domestically and internationally, while many smaller, remote institutions struggled with steep enrolment declines.

Lessons in compassion

Without question, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the inequities and invisible disadvantages affecting some of our colleagues and students in a way that was impossible to ignore. Economic and geographic barriers made it a challenge for some to join a Zoom session, underscoring the inequities of synchronous instruction. Immunocompromised students, or those with vulnerable family members, faced unfair risks attending classes or exams on campus. Emergency financial supports like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) were available to some students but not others. Many researchers working in on-campus labs found their progress slowed or suspended by building closures. Financial, academic, and mental health challenges derailed the education and research of many university students and scholars, and their academic trajectories will show the scars of the pandemic for years.

If the pandemic has a silver lining (however thin), it is that the unequal circumstances and invisible challenges faced by many of our colleagues and students—both before and during the pandemic—have become strikingly evident. It became apparent that “one size fits all” approaches to work and study were inherently biased and unfair. Across Canada, university administrators emphasized the need for compassion and wellness, to manage work/life balance and protect personal time. Some institutions provided additional sick leave and suspended or extended tenure clocks. Most began accepting unofficial transcripts and converting archaic paper processes to digital ones. Instructors deployed asynchronous pedagogies and made room for more self-paced learning, and some adopted principles of Universal Design for Learning to accommodate students in widely divergent circumstances. Academic senates relaxed policies on doctors’ notes, encouraged alternatives to high-stakes testing, and encouraged deadline leniency. Many institutions even offered “academic forgiveness” and pass/fail or credit/no credit grading options to students. Leading universities expanded their summer orientation and bridging programs to reinforce math and science fundamentals and prepare students for academic success.

It became apparent that “one size fits all” approaches to work and study were inherently biased and unfair.

Most of these efforts to provide more flexible, personalized, and supportive contexts for learning and work during COVID-19 could be invaluable for students and scholars struggling with invisible disabilities, personal challenges, or private crises in the future. With luck, we will find appropriate ways to provide more flexibility and support beyond this global health emergency.

Blended instruction

Prior to 2020, university campuses were occasionally closed due to natural disasters, like wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, or ice storms. Facilities managers had to consider these extreme scenarios in their risk management plans, but few academics would have considered them in designing courses or programs. Now, after two years of pandemic uncertainty and recurrent pivots to online, blended, or hybrid instructional delivery, Canadian universities are realizing that academic continuity for students (and business continuity for the institution) may well demand heightened readiness and capacity to pivot in future. Epidemiologists assure us that we will see more pandemics in the years ahead, as we enter “a pandemic era” fuelled by climate change, habitat destruction, zoonotic viruses, and global travel. Extreme weather events are intensifying in frequency and impact. Access to campus classrooms and labs cannot be assumed as a given anymore.

Universities are realizing that academic continuity for students may well demand heightened readiness and capacity to pivot in future.

While online learning offers considerable flexibility in time and space, it remains popular primarily with students for whom such flexibility is paramount: remote students who do not wish to relocate, part-time students juggling their studies with children and work, students with mobility impairments or extreme social anxiety, and professionals seeking postgraduate credentials or in-service certifications.

In general, traditional-aged, full-time undergraduates not only dislike the online experience, they struggle with motivation and persistence in online courses and learn less than they would in person. During the pandemic, many high school seniors sought to delay university entrance in order to avoid a disappointing online experience, taking “gap years” or “victory laps” (which some Ontario school boards even promoted as “Grade 12+”). Undergraduates, forced into remote instruction, intensified their dislike of online studies in the second year of the pandemic. Research has consistently found that the best learning outcomes occur when the mode of instruction is freely chosen by both the instructor and the student—another reason why an involuntary pivot has left most frustrated and dissatisfied.

Even before COVID-19, studies found that blended delivery offered statistically significant improvements in student learning, compared to purely online learning or traditional classroom instruction. Using Open Educational Resources (OER), digital simulations, and asynchronous teaching tools while devoting precious classroom time to more interactive, engaging activities has been shown to enhance student persistence and academic performance. Bringing online cohorts together on campus for brief residency periods demonstrably improves their social integration and academic experience, too. From the institution’s perspective, blended delivery allows better classroom utilization and reduces facilities costs considerably.

It seemed obvious, pre-pandemic, that higher education would inexorably move in the direction of blended delivery, and the pandemic has unquestionably accelerated that trend. After two years experimenting with remote and blended instruction, university faculty have spent more time collectively thinking about their own pedagogy than ever before. Full-time undergraduates are clear that, even once they return to the post-pandemic campus, they want and expect to continue enjoying the conveniences of streaming and recorded lectures, virtual office hours, asynchronous peer interaction, OER textbooks, and other technologies. Using in-person class time for lectures will seem pointless to students and may cease to be the default instructional mode for many instructors.

The pandemic may not usher in a stampede of eager online learners, but it will pave the way for more conscious, active pedagogies that better leverage the affordances of in-person and online technologies.

Lifelong learning

That is not to say that there will be no demand for purely online learning—but the demand will not come just from teenagers straight out of high school. The pandemic pivot forced us all to become lifelong students, learning new software and developing our skills to work remotely. Likewise, the pandemic’s disruption of whole economic sectors and the reinforcement of automation has displaced many workers from their jobs—encouraging them to pursue further education. Massive Online Open Course enrolments have skyrocketed, driven largely by adults laid off or working from home. As Canadian universities began offering their courses and programs online, mature learners and working adults explored their options and part-time enrolments climbed at many institutions. Long before the pandemic, governments were emphasizing the need for “upskilling” and “reskilling” mid-career workers and the recently unemployed. The World Economic Forum has warned that a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” will eventually displace almost half of all workers, due to the adoption of artificial intelligence and robotics. Colleges and polytechnics around the world have embraced workforce-oriented micro-credentials and, in Canada, most college students are non-traditional in age.

The pandemic will unquestionably increase the online options available to mature learners in the future.

To the extent that the pandemic encouraged the development of part-time, online, and micro-credential offerings, it has likely accelerated expectations of some learners for a more modular approach to education. Canadian universities have to decide whether to ignore this non-traditional market, serve them exclusively through continuing education divisions, or reconsider and redesign traditional programs and delivery modes to better meet their needs. By accelerating institutional adoption of online delivery and educational technologies, the pandemic will unquestionably increase the online options available to mature learners in the future—and, by exposing more learners to online delivery, it will provide increased options for a generation more open to ongoing, lifelong learning.

Challenges of change

Canada will eventually emerge from this pandemic (although, as I write this, there is no reason to feel confident that it will be this year). Our institutions, colleagues, and students will find a new equilibrium of hybrid work and learning; personalized programs and supports; on-campus engagement and interaction; and online independence and efficiency. For some time to come, we will see a broad diversity of personal attitudes towards masking, social distancing, remote working, and mass gathering.

The challenge for university communities will be to adapt their policies, procedures, contracts, and traditions to permit flexible, compassionate, and personalized approaches to work and study, without requiring a global health crisis or public health orders. Faculty collective agreements may have to be updated to recognize changes in workload, preparation, supervision, and intellectual property.

The COVID-19 pandemic propelled us all out of our comfort zones and gave us an admittedly imperfect glimpse of the future of higher education. As we gradually adjust, the question we must answer—individually and collectively—is: How much of what we have learned do we wish to keep?

Ken Steele is Canada’s best-known higher education futurist, facilitator, and consultant in branding, marketing, and innovation. Learn more about Ken’s work at Eduvation | Ten with Ken | Twitter | LinkedIn